Toledo Blade editors come to the defense of student newspaper’s candid discussion of homosexuality

The Toledo Blade‘s resounding rebuke of the censors at Sylvania Northview High School should be required reading in every school district office in America:

School officials took a teachable moment and made the message: Stay in the closet. Shame on them for lacking courage, integrity, and a commitment to basic freedoms.

As the SPLC’s Nicole Hill reported last week, the Toledo-area high school is imposing new layers of administrator review on The Student Prints newspaper in response to an editorial page that gave five students with diverse views about homosexuality a chance to explain their perspectives. One student described his religious conviction that homosexuality is a sin, while two others (one gay, one not) urged students to be more accepting.

On Wednesday, The Blade‘s editorial page gave Northview administrators a remedial lesson in respect for diversity of opinions:

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students face discrimination, bullying, intolerance, and other forms of abuse in the hallways of high schools across the country. If talking about it makes some parents and students uncomfortable, too bad. Frank discussions on important topics aren’t meant to be comfortable.

What is doubly unfortunate is that some, if not most, of the community pressure to punish the Northview student journalists and their adviser has come from those who support gay students. They’ve argued that giving over part of an editorial page to anti-gay sentiments lends undeserved legitimacy to that viewpoint.

But that is ostrich-like denial, just as surely as is denying that gay students exist. Nothing said in the pages of The Student Prints has not been heard — using much coarser and more threatening language — by every gay kid at Sylvania Northview High, day in and day out. Whatever one thinks of the underlying sentiments, the arguments on all sides were presented articulately and without malice; no writer called for violence toward or shunning of gay students.

Those who want to combat anti-gay bullying have the best of intentions, but they are skipping an essential step. Students learn most effectively when they are “talked with” and not “lectured to,” and a true dialogue must include surfacing the motives that convince people their bullying behavior is legitimate.

We saw this last year at American University in Washington, D.C., where a student provocateur’s meatheaded column blaming victims for being date-raped caused momentary hurt and outrage, but led to a salutary dialogue that made AU a better place — because the campus community was forced to confront noxious ideas that existed, pervasively, beneath the realm of “polite conversation.”

What The Student Prints published was challenging and unsettling because it strained readers’ expectations about “polite conversation.” Exactly as newspapers are supposed to, and exactly as the First Amendment encourages.

It is rare that editors at a mainstream commercial newspaper “get it” as wholeheartedly as do editors at The Blade. Too many cast their lot with the censors, overlooking the vital role of newspapers — even student-run ones — as spaces where ideas can be aired and tested in a civil manner.

The censors at Sylvania Northview have not stopped intolerance toward gay students — they’ve just driven the conversation off the pages of the newspaper and back into the locker room and onto Facebook. As The Blade appreciates, that is a step backward in creating a healthier campus climate.